"The boat can leave now... tell the crew". And so it began...
In 1978, Italian director Lucio Fulci was already a 20 year veteran of the filmmaking trade with efforts in nearly every genre, ranging from westerns to comedies to extreme thrilllers. After toiling successfully on a number of pictures during the late '50s and into the '60s, Fulci was faced with a virtual explosion from the Italian file scene in the 1970s due to the controversial content of such films as A LIZARD IN A WOMAN's SKIN (1971) and DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING (1972). Mixing religious commentary with pitch black humor, violence and sexuality labeled Fulci a dangerous element and he spent most of the 1970s working under the cinematic radar, despite such worthwhile achievements as the spaghetti western FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE (1975) and the thriller SEVEN NOTES IN BLACK (a.k.a. THE PSYCHIC, 1977).
To define the arrival of ZOMBIE in 1979 as a major reversal of fortune would be an understatement. When George A. Romero's landmark DAWN OF THE DEAD opened in Italy, it was slapped with a new title (ZOMBI) and, almost immediately, producers were ready to cash in. Hence the inevitable ZOMBI 2 (a.k.a. ZOMBIE... confused yet?). ZOMBIE would mark the beginning of several notable collaborations between director Fulci and producer Fabrizio De Angelis, including THE BEYOND (1981), HOUSE BY CEMETERY (1981), and THE NEW YORK RIPPER (1982). Along with composer Fabio Frizzi, makeup-fx creator Gianetto De Rossi, and screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti, the director's work on ZOMBIE would change not only the output of Italian horror cinema from that point on, but forever married Fulci's reputation to the genre of extreme balls-out horror.
Whie the financial success of ZOMBIE was immediate and plentiful, the critical assessment of the film was neither. Most dismissed it as a lame and obvious imitation of DAWN OF THE DEAD, despite the fact that Dardano Sacchetti completed the first draft of the screenplay several months before DAWN was even released in Italy. When it wasn't being slammed or shat upon, ZOMBIE was ignored completely and, as a result, went largely unnoticed outside of the horror community for over a decade. This crime was, sadly, aided and abetted by the unfortunate travesty of the 1980's home video presentations, which severely cropped cinematographer Sergio Salvati's widescreen compositions. As a result, the impression that ZOMBIE gave most viewers was that of an unprofessional, garish misfire that was best forgotten.
Viewing the film over the past decade however has provided more insight and a clearer understanding of the film's strengths. After years of neglect, the film was, at last,finally presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio in North Americ via seperate laserdisc, DVD & VHS releases in the latter half of the 90s. Allthough the film's financially motivated genesis is inarguable, the creative result of ZOMBIE is clearly not assembeled out of elements from George Romero's film. From the opening scenes aboard the derelict yacht to the final image of the zombie horde advancing upon downtown New York, Fuci's film draws the viewer in slowly with sudden bursts of hyper-violent gory mayhem. ZOMBIE's languid pace, smoky visuals, and exotic setting clearly reference the voodoo driven "living dead" films of a bygone era such as Jacques Tourneur's classic I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943).
Of course I would be remiss if I didn't point out that the film's enduring popularity might have something to do with the appealing presences of actors Ian McCulloch (ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST, 1979) and Richard Johnson (TOMB RAIDER, 2001) and the plethora of stunning (albiet nasty) gore drenced setpieces that remain fan favorites to this day. It is often hard to choose a favorite. Is it the underwater battle between a surprisingly resilient zombie and a determined shark, or the sight of actress Olga Karlatos' eye being slowly pierced by a jagged splinter? I guess it is a matter of taste.
The Film's worldwide promotional materials remain some of the most diabolically effective ever created and have emblazoned countless video covers and movie posters over the years. The often-used image of a worm-infested rotting zombie head (check out the cover of this DVD) has become a staple of horror movie iconography, and one of the most popular sights to adorn a gorehounds's wall.
In the end, ZOMBIE remains one of Lucio Fulci's most deliberate and sustained accomplishments. It is a testament to his craftsmanship that the film continues to live up to the hyperbole that so vividly promised...